Emery's Berry Farm, Inc.
New Jersey, near New Egypt; about 20 miles southeast
of Trenton, NJ, and 45 miles northeast of Philadelphia
Key people: John Marchese; his
mother Susan Marchese
Years farming: 5 at this location
Total acreage: 60 acres
Tillable acres: about 40, of which 29 in blueberries,
1 1/2 in raspberries, 2 in pumpkins
Crops: blueberries, raspberries, pumpkins,
Marketing: U-pick, on-farm retail stand,
products for pest management
concentrated H2O2 formulations
such as StorOx (BioSafe Systems). Acts as a non-residual
broad-spectrum mineral fungicide used against
powdery mildew, rusts, and scabs. Many commercial
products approved for organic. Used in blueberry
production to help bring down soil pH levels and
improve the overall health of the plants.
botanical insecticide derived from chrysanthemums.
Commercial products include PyGanic (MGK Co.),
labeled for a wide variety of pests and crop applications,
including blueberry maggot.
insecticide derived from the seeds of the neem
tree native to the Indian subcontinent. Used for
centuries against leafhoppers, aphids, hornworms,
whiteflies and weevils. Several commercial forms
approved for U.S. organic production.
fermentation product derived from a rare soil
bacterium, Saccharopolyspora spinosa.
Approved for organic production (as Entrust, Dow
AgroSciences) and effective against blueberry
maggot, the single most damaging blueberry pest.
I arrive at Emery’s Berry Farm early on a Monday morning,
the first school bus is already in the parking lot, unloading
summer campers toward the barn-like farm stand. Shepherded
by counselors, the kids tumble in, select old coffee cans
fixed with string from a large bin, and hang them around their
necks. Then they head back outside and pile on to a low trailer
hooked to a little old orchard tractor for the ride out to
the U-pick fields, squirming and shouting all the way.
Farm manager and co-owner John Marchese (pronounced 'mar-KAY-zee')
is close at hand, directing traffic and taking evident pride
in the chaotic pleasure of the kids. "If you’re
a U-pick farmer, you have an obligation" to offer a safe,
chemical-free product, he says. "You know there are going
to be kids out there eating in the fields." Mondays are
his slow day, but even so, streams of cars and customers,
trucks and employees swirl around the farm. On weekends they
hook two people-trailers each to two tractors and run them
back and forth to the fields all day. Situated on the edge
of the Pine Barrens, in the western corner of Ocean County,
Emery's is not only the largest organic blueberry grower in
New Jersey, but also, Marchese ventures, "probably the
most successful U-pick blueberry operation in the state."
It's fitting that that conjunction--between U-pick marketing
and organic blueberries--should take root here. When John's
parents, Michael and Susan Marchese, purchased this farm 5
years ago and converted it to organic, they kept the name
Emery's in honor of the original owner, Butch Emery, who "had
a reputation for being the first person to hook a wagon on
to a tractor and bring people out into his fields." "People
thought he was crazy," John explains, "but then
they saw it was a great idea."
The blueberry itself, moreover, was first domesticated less
than 15 miles from here by a woman John refers to simply as
"Elizabeth.” That’s Elizabeth Coleman White
(1871-1954), daughter of a prominent cranberry grower and, in
the 1910s, the first person to bring wild blueberries out of
the woods and develop them into commercial varieties. The high-bush
blueberry's proximity to its wild origins gives it good natural
vigor and pest resistance, making it an excellent crop for organic
||Over the past three years, organic
blueberries have been selling at between $18 and $28 a
72-oz flat, while conventional berry prices have ranged
from $8 to $16 a flat. U-pickers at Emery's pay $1.75/lb
for their organic berries, versus around 90¢/lb for
conventional u-pick blueberries nearby.
Today, the Marcheses are upholding that twin tradition by
running a profitable family farm business and at the same
time working closely with Rutgers Cooperative Extension to
advance the potential of organics within the Mid-Atlantic's
blueberry industry. In New Jersey, high-bush blueberries are
a $40 million market, with 7,500 acres in production, only
around 2 percent of which are certified organic.
That demand exceeds supply is indicated by the fact over the
past three years, organic blueberries have been selling at
between $18 and $28 a 72-oz flat, while conventional berry
prices have ranged from $8 to $16 a flat. U-pickers at Emery's
pay $1.75/lb for their organic berries, versus around 90¢/lb
for conventional U-pick blueberries nearby. (A pound of blueberries
is around 3/4 of a pint.) Given those kinds of incentives,
it's not surprising that interest is growing: a recent Twilight
Meeting at Emery's, organized by Monmouth County Extension
Agent Bill Sciarappa to highlight the on-farm research he
has been conducting there, drew more than 100 people.
Picking up where his dad left off: creating the largest
blueberry farm in the state
The last 5 years have offered a steep learning curve to the
Marcheses themselves. Michael and Susan Marchese ran a small,
diversified organic vegetable farm over near the shore for
many years, but blueberries were a new crop for them. "My
dad brought me over to have a look at this place when he was
thinking about buying it," John recalls. "The farmstand
was run down, the kitchens were a mess, the fields were overgrown--it
had been on the market for two years."
In 2001, after just three seasons of work on the new property,
Mike was diagnosed with a type of liver cancer (the family
believes it was caused by exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam)
and died within a few months. John, who had been earning six
figures working for a surgical supply company and whose agricultural
background consisted of growing up on his parents' farm, stepped
into the breach. Last season he tried splitting his time between
his old job and Emery's, but now, aged 32, he's fully committed
to life as a berry farmer. “I’m glad I’ve
got some money saved,” he says wryly, but he has no
regrets about the career change.
John's mother Susan Marchese retains an equal role in the
business, and other family members--aunts, uncles, and cousins--also
help out. "John handles the growing, and I handle the
store," says Susan. Once a quarter or so, mother and
son sit down to look at the books and make decisions about
changes and improvements. For the moment, they have 29 acres
of blueberries picking from mid-June to early August, 1 1/2
acres of raspberries from early September to first frost,
and 2 acres of pumpkins from mid-September to Halloween. The
farm stand stays open 7 days a week, 9 to 5, from late March
to late December, selling pies, muffins, syrups, jams, and
The Marcheses report that when they converted Emery's to
organic, the customer base both shifted and increased. As
John puts it, “we lost 20 percent of the business and picked
up 40 percent.”
Wholesale rounds out their organic berry business
In addition to the U-pick and retail sales, the Marcheses'
berries are wholesaled through Albert's Organics and Four
Seasons, ultimately traveling to Boston, Philadelphia, and
Washington D.C. The berries are easily identified by the "Emery's
Berry Farm" label stuck to every package. John maintains
separate fields at the back of the farm for his pre-picked
or 'shipping' berries, but says that the balance between U-pick
and shipping sales varies--this year, he estimates, they’re
running about 70 percent U-pick and 30 percent shipping.
help : High schoolers (from left to right):
Matt, RJ, Greg, Paul, and Ryan, earn extra cash
sorting out the bad berries.
One of the Marcheses' major early investments was in packing
equipment that enables them to process 80 flats an hour and
deliver clean, top-quality pints. Berries are tipped from
harvesting flats onto a conveyor belt, where four or five
workers cull green or damaged fruit; the berries are then
funneled into plastic clam-shells which are automatically
separated, filled, and shut.
The farm's fields are laid out in small blocks, 1/4 acre to
2 or more acres in size, with rows 10 ft apart and bushes
3 ft apart in the rows. Varieties include Berkeley, Duke,
and Weymouth; John's current favorite is Blue Crop, which
is disease resistant and has a strongly upright growth habit.
That makes it well suited to the use of the Weed Badger, a
PTO-driven, hydraulic-controlled cultivator with a heavy arm
that bends around the right hand side of the tractor and can
be maneuvered in and out to cultivate between the plants in
the row. Although the rows are looking a little weedy at the
moment--in this year's soggy spring they were pumping standing
water out of the fields instead of cultivating--John shrugs
with the confidence of a farmer who's got his weed control
system down. "Weeds are an inconvenience, not a problem,"
he says. "I'll get them cleaned out again when we're
Working on a no-till system to cut labor and energy
no-till, low-mow system: Marchese, with
Bill Sciarappa and SARE, hopes to develop a system
that will allow his mower to enter semi-retirement.
Even so, Marchese is working with Bill Sciarappa to develop
a no-till system to reduce the number of trips through the
fields. The idea is to combine low-growing covers like fescue
and buffalo grass in the alleys with heavy mulching in the
rows, so that in theory, as John explains, "I should
be able to mow [the alleys] twice a year and be done with
Funded in part by a Sustainable Agriculture Research and
Education (SARE) grant, the trials are evaluating two different
establishment methods and eight different mulching treatments
including coffee grounds, tea leaves, cocoa bean hulls, pine
bark chips, hardwood chips, and landscape fabric.
Sciarappa also added a pest control dimension to the study,
examining ten different organic-approved materials including
compost tea, hydrogen peroxide, sulfur, pyrethrum, neem, and
spinosad. Finally, the collaborators are trying to figure
out a way to use drip irrigation, instead of overhead sprinklers,
without interfering with the use of the Weed Badger.
||The Marcheses report that when they
converted Emery's to organic, the customer base both shifted
and increased. As John puts it, “we lost 20% of
the business and picked up 40%.”
Marchese is keen to perfect his establishment procedure,
since some of the blueberry bushes on the farm are as many
as 40 years old, and he is gradually renovating field by field.
When putting in a new block, Marchese 'mulches' below the
soil level as well as above it, laying down 20 inches of composted
hardwood chips in the plant-row trenches. He creates the roughly
18-by-18-inch opening with a subsoiler or "middlebuster"
blade. The mulch helps create a pH of 4.8 or 4.9 and organic
matter content of 30-35 percent in the plants' primary root
For fertility, Marchese side-dresses using a Vicon dog-tail
spreader and a granular, processed poultry manure product
he gets from Frank Perdue in Delaware.
“Last year I bought 26 tons at $80 a ton,” John
explains. "It’s 4-3-3, and it's supposed to be
put down post-bloom.” Because it's a composted and processed
product, its application is not restricted by pre-harvest
date, but John likes to get it on as early as possible.
Getting help from his friends, both organic and conventional
Blueberry yields at Emery’s run between 2000-3000 lbs/acre--similar
to what an average conventional grower might get, says Marchese,
albeit considerably less than the best conventional yields,
which can run as high as 6000-8000 lbs/acre. John readily
admits he has more to learn about growing berries. "I'm
still pretty new at this. For now I’m comfortable losing
part of the crop to disease. Take this year. I probably lost
about 4 percent to cherry fruit worm--I could have sprayed Bt for
that, but I didn't--4 percent to mummyberry, 10 percent to poor pollination,
10 percent to blight."
On the other hand, John points out, conventional growers
in the area probably suffered more from poor pollination this
year because of the diversity of pollinators the organic farm
supports. "Along the wood line I got close to 100 percent fruit
set," he marvels. "There were just tons of bumblebees
out there this spring, when the honeybees were in the hives
because it was too cold.”
John compares notes regularly with other organic blueberry
growers in the region, but credits Bobby Galletta of Atlantic
Blueberry Company—based in Hammonton, and one of the
largest and oldest blueberry farms in the state—with
nurturing him as a grower, especially after Mike Marchese
passed away. "Bobby is a great guy," says John,
"and he’s the best blueberry grower in the country.
He farms very conservatively; his fields have very high organic
matter and he uses an absolute minimum of herbicides and pesticides."
Why U-Pick? Because it’s really cool.
room : U-pickers stop a the farmstand to
pick up their buckets and hitch a ride to the fields.
Perhaps with the large-scale, commercial Atlantic Blueberry
farms in mind, John cautions that operating a U-pick farm
has a number of disadvantages: You open yourself up to crop
wastage, to liability, to inspection and criticism. So why
do they do it?
He surveys the fields full of customers with satisfaction.
“Because it’s really cool. Because everyday you
get to come out here and see some three year-old kid with
blueberry juice smeared all over him and a big smile on his
face, and you know he’s probably coming from some condo
or townhouse somewhere and this might be his first visit to
a farm ever. That’s why."